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Analysis: Iraqi Prime Minister Faces Biggest Political Test To Date

Prime Minister Allawi in a tough spot (file photo) 12 August 2004 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi faces the greatest political test of his admittedly young administration this week in the standoff between allied Iraqi and multinational forces on the one hand, and radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on the other.

As renewed violence that began on 4 August intensified and prompted the launch of what U.S. military sources described as a "major operation" against insurgents in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf on 12 August, Allawi's backing for that incursion appeared tenuous. Iraqi political and religious leaders this week -- including Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari -- called on U.S.-led multinational forces to withdraw from Al-Najaf as many leaders blamed the interim Iraqi government for the escalation of violence in the city.

The escalation of fighting had placed Allawi in the difficult position of having either to follow through with his 8 August demand that militiamen withdraw from Al-Najaf or face removal by force, or to back down, a move that would place his interim administration in a vulnerable position. As cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Imam Al-Mahdi Army stood their ground in Al-Najaf, Iraqis in Al-Basrah and Al-Nasiriyah demonstrated in support of the cleric; heavy fighting broke out in al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, Al-Sadr City, and in Al-Amarah.

Al-Arabiyah television reported on 11 August that President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir had submitted a six-point proposal for ending the standoff and that Allawi was considering the document, which would be presented to al-Sadr not as a compromise or "submission to [al-Sadr's] demands" but rather "from a position of power and control." The details of the plan have not been revealed. The plan could have helped extricate Allawi from his 8 August stance without more bloodshed. But media reports on 11 August also indicated that U.S.-led forces were considering storming the militia's base at the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf, a move that could spark enormous outrage from Muslims worldwide -- Shi'a consider the mosque the third-holiest site in the world. As the incursion got under way, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said an agreement had been reached with multinational forces that only Iraqi security personnel would enter the holy sites.
Opposition to the fighting in Al-Najaf built throughout the week, with many Iraqis equating Allawi's interim administration with Saddam Hussein's regime and the oppression it inflicted on Shi'a.

Opposition to the fighting in Al-Najaf built throughout the week, with many Iraqis equating Allawi's interim administration with Saddam Hussein's regime and the oppression it inflicted on Shi'a. Iraqi Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Husayni al-Shirazi issued a statement on 7 August warning that the escalation in violence could lead to civil war, according to the text of the statement posted on the Shi'ite News Agency website ( on 8 August. Al-Shirazi said he had hoped the interim government "would act more wisely in containing the clashes" and criticized the "foreign forces' use of violence" against militiamen and militants, adding that "the use of violence breeds more violence." The grand ayatollah proposed several steps to contain the spread of violence, starting with a commitment by all Iraqis to nonviolence. He called on multinational forces to avoid doing anything to spur fighting and said the interim government should take steps toward dialogue with militants.

The Iraqi Islamic Party offered to intervene and negotiate an end to the standoff on 9 August. Former Iraqi Governing Council member and party head Muhsin Abd al-Hamid called on the Iraqi government and al-Sadr to return to negotiations, adding: "We call on all parties to work toward saving the city from any other possible disasters, especially since the Iraqi people cannot tolerate more disasters. The Iraqi Islamic Party, along with the Iraqi Shi'ite and national parties and the Muslim Scholars Association, expresses readiness to intervene" through negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party reportedly issued a statement on 11 August saying it held Al-Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zurufi responsible for the escalation in violence and planned to question him on whether or not he sanctioned the attacks by multinational forces on militiamen in the city. The declaration came after several statements were issued by the Shi'ite Political Council regarding the fighting.

The council lent its support to al-Sadr and denounced the multinational forces' military operations in the city. In a 7 August statement, the council called on the interim government to "observe the national interest and not yield to foreign pressure" in the standoff. The council further claimed that the military operations aimed at subjugating the Iraqi people and in particular Shi'a, and called on multinational forces to withdraw their troops and resume negotiations toward reimplementing the cease-fire agreement reached with al-Sadr in June.

The issue was further complicated by several Arabic press reports that suggested regime loyalists are fighting alongside al-Sadr militiamen in Al-Najaf. Reports of this nature are not new. Similar reports surfaced during a standoff in April and May. Shi'a cleric Muhammad al-Haydari warned worshippers during his Friday prayer sermon on 6 August that foreign elements were working to sow destruction in Iraq by sending arms to Iraq. Al-Haydari also recounted the confession of an apparent terrorist in Karbala who was arrested along with other members of his group in possession of explosives and a booby-trapped car. The man told his interrogators that he was from Western Iraq and was instructed that if captured, he should claim to be a member of the Al-Mahdi Army. Al-Haydari surmised that the intention of terrorists is "to carry out operations aimed at creating sedition and instability and then to blame the Al-Mahdi Army, but the truth is different."

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting ( reported on 10 August that Hussein loyalists were training Al-Mahdi militiamen in the use of rocket-propelled-grenade launchers in Al-Kufah. The "volunteers" were said to have come from Amarah, Al-Diwaniyah, and Al-Kut to join the fight against U.S. forces. The report said that AK-47s were smuggled into Al-Kufah under loads of watermelons.

One Hussein loyalist, former Colonel Rifa't al-Janabi, told IWPR that he traveled from Al-Fallujah to Al-Najaf to train the militiamen. "The Fallujah Consultancy Council of Mujahidin holy warriors sent me with nine other officers and forty soldiers who are well trained in using mortar and the RPG-7 grenade launcher," he said. "We had to stand by our Shi'a brothers in Najaf, who stood by us in Fallujah," he said, referring to the intense fighting that took place in that city in April.

Media reports have also revealed the level of Iranian involvement in the fighting in Al-Najaf. Iraqi police arrested 28 Iranians and three Afghans in the nearby holy city of Karbala on 8 August. Police deported about 1,000 Iranians from the city one day earlier, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Najaf Governor al-Zurufi said on 8 August that police were searching for a group of 80 Iranian fighters thought to be holed up in Al-Najaf's vast cemetery. "There is Iranian support to al-Sadr's group, and this is no secret. We have information and evidence that they are supplying the Al-Mahdi Army with weapons and have found such weapons in their possession," he said. Iran has denied the claims.

Meanwhile, citizens in Karbala protested the ongoing fighting and called for the resignation of Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and Al-Najaf Governor al-Zurufi. Al-Arabiyah reported on 11 August that thousands demonstrated in Al-Nasiriyah, demanding Allawi's resignation. Protesters also twice set fire to the office of Allawi's political party, the Iraqi National Accord, in the city, once on 11 August and again on 12 August.

Allawi thus faces a political test that would challenge even the most well-seasoned politician -- which, of course, he is not. He needs to bring order to Al-Najaf while preserving his credibility -- it is unclear whether he has the power to do so. This week, leaders in the Al-Basrah, Maysan, and Dhi Qar governorates announced their desire to secede from Baghdad and establish a federal state in southern Iraq if Iraqi and multinational forces refused to withdraw from Al-Najaf.

Salim al-Maliki, deputy governor of Al-Basrah, on 9 August issued an order to close Al-Basrah's ports to prevent the export of oil from terminals there, KUNA reported. Al-Maliki then threatened to announce separation from Baghdad and to declare an all-out rebellion if the fighting in Al-Najaf did not stop. Meanwhile, the Dhi Qar Governorate Council issued a statement on 9 August saying it would join Al-Basrah and the Maysan Governorate in separating from Iraq on the same grounds, Al-Jazeera reported. Maysan Governorate Council Chairman Ali Hammud al-Musawi told Al-Jazeera on 10 August that the governorate would interrupt oil supplies flowing through Maysan and block all intercity highways until Baghdad changes its stance. "Iyad Allawi and his government...must know that we expect from them justice, liberty, and democracy; we expect from them peaceful negotiations with our sons and brothers" in Al-Najaf, he said. Any attempts by the governorates to secede could provoke a civil war in Iraq; 90 percent of Iraq's oil reserves are located in the south.